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How to Talk to Someone With an Eating Disorder

The decision to make a change is rarely an easy one for an individual struggling with an eating disorder. If the eating disorder has left them malnourished, it can distort the way they think about their body, the world around them, and even your motivations for trying to help. Whether you are a loved one close to the individual in need or a therapist, talking to someone who is struggling with a deadly eating disorder is an art and should be done in a compassionate and educational manner.

Pick a good time.

Choose a time when you can speak to the individual in private without distractions or constraints in a neutral but comfortable setting. A sterile room, a crowded elevator, or on the way to school are not comfortable settings. Choose a quiet private area where both you and the individual can become comfortable sitting down and talking.

Explain why you are concerned.

Although it is essential to explain why eating disorders are deadly, avoid lecturing or criticizing and instead provide specific situations and behaviors that you noticed and why they concern you. The goal of this is to try to express your concerns about the individual’s health and behaviors, so hopefully, they can understand how much you care for them and the gravity of their illness.

Be prepared for denial and resistance.

It is very common for individuals with an eating disorder to become defensive and emotionally charged during these conversations. They most likely are embarrassed and are in denial as many individuals go to great extremes to hide their eating disorder.  If this happens, try to remain calm, focused, and respectful. Remember that this conversation likely feels very threatening to someone with an eating disorder.

Ask them if they have a desire to change.

Most eating disorders go undiagnosed for years, and many individuals wait even longer to enter treatment. This is because they are in denial, feel ashamed and do not want to change their behavior. They must be ready to make a change before they can get better. The reasoning behind why they want to change is also essential. Do they want to change to please someone else? Or do they want to change to heal themselves and be able to live a healthy life? Those individuals, who enter eating disorder treatment because they want to change for someone else, have a higher risk of relapsing in recovery than those who want to change for themselves.

Be patient and supportive.

Eating disorder recovery is a long-term and for many, a lifelong journey. It will take some time before the individual comes to terms that they want and need help. They may shut you out at first, but these conversations are a way to open up the lines of communication. Make it clear that you care, that you believe in them, and that you’ll be there in whatever way they need, whenever they’re ready.

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